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High-ranking prosecutors battling for position of District Attorney in first contested race since 1982 | April 28, 2018

District Attorney Lisa Green went unchallenged when elected to the position of Kern’s top prosecutor in 2010.

Eight years later, with Green having announced her retirement, the race to choose her successor is shaping up to be a hard-fought, divisive one.

The race between Assistant District Attorney Scott Spielman, the office’s second-in-command, and Supervising Deputy District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer, who in recent years has prosecuted high-profile cases including that of the so-called “Eastside Rapist,” has split political and law enforcement circles.

Green is backing Spielman, while former District Attorney Ed Jagels has thrown his support behind Zimmer.

The unions representing Bakersfield police officers and Kern County sheriff’s deputies, among other police unions, are backing Zimmer, while Spielman is backed by Sheriff Donny Youngblood and two former chiefs of the Bakersfield Police Department.

Both claim to have the backing of law enforcement; both say they have the experience both in court and with new technology that makes them the best for the job; and both claim to be the stronger leader. Also, both have spent decades in the District Attorney’s Office and have handled and array of cases.
Each is relatively reserved in what they’d say is positive about the other.

“She’s a good prosecutor, and has done a good job as a supervisor,” Spielman said of Zimmer.

“He’s a devoted employee to that office and loves the office like I do,” Zimmer said of Spielman.

Voters will have plenty to sift through before making a decision.

The two have engaged in recent debates and each also has answered questions in separate meetings at The Californian. Following are a summary of some of their answers to questions posed at debates and by reporters.

Spielman served in the U.S. Army and worked as a military police officer. He said that experience as a law enforcement officer gives him a better understanding than his opponent of what officers go through during the course of their jobs, including situations where they’re on high alert searching for a suspect as the adrenaline’s flowing.

Due to incidents both locally and nationwide the past few years involving deaths of people at the hands of law enforcement, peace officers have faced increased scrutiny and criticism.

Spielman helped institute the District Attorney’s Office’s review process of all officer-involved shootings in the county. It’s a move that didn’t make him popular with the police unions, Spielman said, but he believes it’s important to be as transparent in those reviews as possible and share with the public what exactly led to a determination of whether an officer’s actions were justified.

Zimmer said allegations that there have been an exceptionally high number of shootings per capita on the part of Kern law enforcement were inaccurate and part of “assassin journalism” on the part of The Guardian. She said police shootings are down while crimes against officers are up.

She has repeatedly pointed to her police union endorsements in touting herself as the law enforcement candidate, but Spielman has implied she’s made backroom deals to gain the unions’ support. Zimmer has called those implications insulting.

The two also have traded barbs regarding their experience, both administratively and in the courtroom.

Zimmer said Spielman has only prosecuted one case in the past seven years. Spielman acknowledged his time in court has decreased, but that’s because he’s assisted in

Green in running the entire office and handling administrative duties.

He also said Zimmer went through a 10- to 15-year period where she didn’t try a single case. She said that’s not true.

Asked about the death penalty, both candidates said it should be reserved for the most extreme cases, the worst of the worst. Such cases are costly, but both said they will seek the death penalty in appropriate situations.

Both said gang convictions were among their best cases.

For Spielman, securing first-degree murder convictions against John Thomas Jr. and Johnte Allen was a highlight of his career in the courtroom. The two men — convicted in 2008 of gunning down Jesse Harkleroad, 21, when they opened fire on a group of poker players — laughed when the verdicts were read.

They were sentenced to life without parole.

Zimmer said the case she considers her best occurred in 2009 when she secured convictions against Country Boy Crip gang members Corey Ray Johnson, Joseph Kevin Dixon and David Lee Jr. The three attacked and shot numerous people in multiple incidents in 2007.

Killed were Vanessa Alcala, 19, along with her unborn child, and James Oliver Wallace, 21, Dixon’s own cousin.

Each defendant was sentenced to life terms without the possibility of parole.

Asked about wrongful convictions, Spielman said, prosecutors need to have an objective look at the evidence and make an independent review where they believe they can prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.

“If you’re following your conscience and following the law, you’re going to be in much better shape,” he said.
Zimmer said new technology can help prevent wrongful convictions, and said she’s taught at conferences regarding the use of DNA technology.

“Gone are the days of relying on pure eyewitness testimony,” she said.

Zimmer has portrayed herself as the tougher prosecutor and said local gang-related and other violent crimes need a strong hand against them. She said it’s unacceptable that children have been killed in local shootings in the past couple of years.

“I care deeply for my office and deeply for the citizens of Kern County, and we can do better,” she said.

Spielman, however, has said he has the experience both as a seasoned prosecutor and within managerial roles to successfully guide the prosecutor’s office. He said he has far more law enforcement and trial experience than his opponent.

He said he’ll make sure the office’s work is done thoroughly and objectively, with a complete gathering of the facts. Someone “level-headed, with the appropriate temperament” should be deciding whether to file charges, he said.

“It’s a lot of power to file charges,” Spielman said. “You need to put in the necessary work.”

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